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The Power of Positive Internal Motivation

I was troubled by a conversation I had with my son this morning. My 10-year-old son came home from swim practice today and told me that he didn’t want to swim again and he didn’t want to go to another practice this season. When I asked why, he responded, “The coach told us that for each mistake made by any 9 – 10 year old swimmer in the swim meet tomorrow, we’d all have to swim a 100 yard butterfly next week at practice.” He was sure there would be at least 10 mistakes made (e.g., taking a breath coming off the wall, etc.). If that came true, then the 9 – 10 year olds will be made to swim 1000 yards (or 40 laps) of butterfly during the next practice.

I’ve done a number of sports psychology presentations. Part of my presentation focuses on positive versus negative motivation. In my opinion, the motivation discussed above is entirely negative and is punitive in nature. If you have ever swum, I think you’ll agree 40 laps of butterfly is punishment for a 9- or 10-year-old child. And the worst part is that an individual swimmer has little to no control over all the behaviors which leads to the outcome. In other words, an individual may swim great races and not make a mistake, and still be punished for the mistakes of others.

This sort of negative motivation does nothing to instill a love of swimming. On the other hand, it does lead to burnout. It will cause a young athlete to turn his back on swimming altogether. This is nearly always the case when values clash.

Ideally, children enter into a sport to build competence, be with their friends, discover a passion for the sport, and have fun. When these values conflict with those of a more competitive environment where the emphasis is placed on beating an opponent, burnout and turnover are the natural consequences.
Interestingly, the same holds true for the business world. Human beings respond well to positive motivation. We recoil and withdraw under the thumb of negative motivation.

In general, motivation refers to the start, the direction, the intensity and the persistence of behavior. Motivation means having the passion and the will to undertake some action. Motivation may be internal (i.e., intrinsic motivation) or external (i.e., extrinsic motivation).

Internal motivation is seen when a person undertakes an activity for its own sake without any sort of external reward, such as a hobby. Internal motivation can result from our feelings (e.g., happiness, anger, and sadness), thoughts (e.g., “I better finish the report before the deadline tonight.”), values and goals.

External motivation is evident when someone behaves a particular way for reasons external to, or outside of, the person, such as money or coercion. External motivation may come from parents, a boss, coworkers, friends, and siblings. It is most frequently thought of in terms of salary (i.e., money), promotions, grades, praise and punishment.

A second dimension of motivation has to do with the underlying intention of the motivation, as seen in Figure 1 below. Motivation occurs on a spectrum ranging from negative to positive.

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Positive motivation is seen when people engage in an activity that has a virtuous end, such as volunteering, athletics, or art.

Negative motivation is evident when individuals act in a manner that is unethical or has a destructive end, such as judging others, physical altercations or vandalism. Negative motivation also occurs when individuals use destructive emotions, such as guilt and shame, to coerce others into acting.

Think of motivation as occurring on a scale that ranges from 1 to 10 with 1 being negative and 10 being positive.

If you are looking for the best results in your workforce, you will focus more of your time and energy on positive, internal motivation for yourself as well as others.

The Power of Positive Internal Motivation

John L. Schinnerer, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Schinnerer, J. (2020). The Power of Positive Internal Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.